An Interview with Steve Stuebner

Steve Stuebner is the author of several mountain bike books. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2010.

Steve Stuebner

Bruce Reichert: What attracted you to the trails of the Boulder-White Cloud area?
Steve Stuebner: I think the original draw to me was doing the Fisher Williams loop. That was kind of the first mountain bike loop developed for mountain bikes in that area back in the '80's, and it was just super fun to ride that. Actually, when I was president of SWIMBA (Southwest Idaho Mountain Bike Association), we actually did some trail maintenance up there in cooperation with the Forest Service and did some work days up there. It was like, if you went camping in Stanley, you definitely would take a day to do the Fisher Williams ride.

And then as things evolved, people started riding longer rides up in the White Clouds and more epic rides that might include starting on the east side of the range and climbing over up into the high country, and then ending up back down there or even ending up on the west side. I've done that, and I've done some loops from the Fourth of July trailhead and spent 8 hours riding and maybe half the day hike-a-bike, because of the steep trails and the gnarly nature of the trails in places.

BR: Back in 1964, the Wilderness Act didn't consider mountain biking, did it?
SS: The sport of mountain biking really didn't come into being until, I think, there are reports in Crusted Butte in '79; but I didn't start riding until the mid-80's, and I don't think most people could afford a mountain bike until the mid-80's. That's really when they got into mass production.

So the Wilderness Act refers to no mechanized travel and no motorized travel and that has definitely led the Forest Service to ban mountain bikes in Wilderness.

BR: How have mountain bikes changed over the years?
SS: Mountain bikes first had a rigid fork, so there was no front suspension, and there was no rear suspension, so they were rigid bikes and with wider tires. This has evolved now where a number of manufacturers are making what they call a 29er, and so these are 29 inch wheels, and for somebody that is maybe 6 feet or taller, a 29er fits your body really nice, and you are a little bit higher up off the trail, and you don't hit as many rocks with your pedals, and the larger wheels supposedly roll over things easier.

I'm a recreational biker; I like the soft, silky ride on the way down, and the full suspension bike really gives you that feel when you are going downhill. It gives you the feeling of skiing powder. Originally, with the rigid bike, it just banged the hell out of you, and you would finish a downhill, and your arms are vibrating and your legs are quivering. You pay a huge physical price to go over gnarly terrain, not to mention the brakes weren't very nice back in those days.

Mountain bikes in White CloudsNow you've got these hydraulic disc brakes where it really only takes one finger tip to brake, so that has changed a lot. And then you've got downhill bikes which are really much heavier bikes, and they are made for going down, and they are close to looking like almost a motorcycle today, the amount of suspension they have on them. And they are really built for speed and the gnarliest conditions you can imagine.

BR: How have the gears changed?
SS: Over the years the rear cluster used to be 5 or 6 speeds back there, and now I've got 9. And then you've got 3 chain rings up front. That is pretty standard with a mountain bike, so 27 speeds.

BR: What bike works best in the White Clouds?
SS: A cross country bike is built for that, because there are a lot of steep up-hills. You don't want to be carrying a real heavy bike around on your shoulder in there if you can help it.

BR: What's your take on mountain bikes and the Wilderness Act?
SS: I don't think it is appropriate to group mountain bikes in with the motorized users, because we're not motorized, and so we're quiet. It is almost a different class unto itself, and the authors of the Wilderness Act just didn't foresee that at the time.

I would love for the Act to be revisited at some point, maybe 10 years from now; it would be really interesting to see what kind of demographics are using wilderness at that point, because a lot of the horseback users are aging. I wonder if that will be sustainable over time in sufficient numbers.

You wonder about backpacking too, whether all the kids playing video games and what have you, not spending as much time outdoors. You wonder how much recruitment there will be for backpacking over the years. Maybe someday it would be appropriate to revisit what uses are allowed in wilderness.

BR: If mountain bikes keep evolving, could that be a problem with having them in Wilderness?
SS: The sport has evolved a lot, and it has gone from cross country riding to free riding, a really big deal which is mainly going downhill off serious stunts and catching big air and that kind of stuff.

Is that appropriate in wilderness? Probably not, so if that is where the sport is headed, that is an issue maybe. I hope that there is always a solid core of cross country mountain bikers. There certainly should be in the west, where the mountains just have thousands and thousands of miles of trail to enjoy.

The organized groups in Idaho have had a hard time coming up with a unified position on this issue, because it is real divisive, even just among the mountain biking community. Some of the mountain bikers are more in the motorized camp, are closer to those folks, and so they really kind of fall into their position where they just don't think wilderness makes sense for the area.

Early morning sun hits Merriam and Castle Peaks reflected in Baker Lake White Clouds Sawtooth National Recreation Area IdahoI was looking at the maps yesterday, and they've really got a line around the classic wilderness in the White Clouds, where you've got a lot of above-timberline stuff and high peaks and high lakes, and to me that really meets the definition of wilderness.

If we have to sacrifice a little bit of that area from a mountain biking perspective, my personal opinion is that that is okay, because there are a lot of other areas where I can ride and other people can ride.

Where I'm coming from, I just can't imagine another place that doesn't meet the classic definition like that area. It is just gorgeous above timberline. Beautiful country. I have friends in the motorized community, and there are times when we can work together on things, and this is just one of those areas where my position is different from theirs.

BR: If mountain bikers have to make some concessions in the White Clouds, are there areas where you think there should be some compromises made elsewhere for the benefit of mountain bikers?
SS: I mentioned the Rapid River issue to them, and it was real disappointing to us. I think the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society would appreciate some mountain bikers who are in favor of Boulder White Cloud, to work with us on access in some other areas as sort of a trade off. And we recently pretty much got the total stiff arm from ICL and the Wilderness Society related to the Rapid River Trail.

They filed a lawsuit against the Payette National Forest to close that trail to motorized use in the headwaters area, in the upper part of the trail, and that was on the Payette National Forest. But then the Nez Perce has the lower part of the trail, including this 4 mile segment where mountain bikes could ride, and you could do an up and back ride up to a point where it got pretty steep, and most people would turn around, and so mountain bikers could use the lower part of Rapid River which is a beautiful area.

The Forest Service last year improved the trail with motorized and mechanized equipment and then all of a sudden this year, because of this lawsuit that ICL and Wilderness Society filed against the Forest Service, the trail is closed forever potentially.

They just flat didn't even know that mountain bikers used the trail, so it was really rather clumsy. I'm really hoping that at least the congressional delegation will help us find a replacement to Rapid River in that part of Idaho and work on opening up access for us in other areas where we might need it.

It really is a big sacrifice to lose some of those areas which we could lose in a Boulder White Cloud Wilderness.